Thursday, December 11, 2008

Klaatu, evolution and mainstream cloning

Tomorrow the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still will open at theaters across the US. In this version, the alien evaluator Klaatu wearing a human body (played by Keanu Reeves) has been sent to earth to assess whether the environmental damage man has inflicted on the Earth can be reversed, or whether we should all be eliminated to save the planet. Klaatu's home planet apparently also went through a period of severe climate change, and his race "went through drastic evolution" to survive.

Interestingly, it seems that a big part of the publicity push has been to talk about the science of the movie. Last Friday Fox arranged a panel discussion at CalTech that included Reeves and director Scott Derrickson, along with astrophysicist Sean Carroll and robotic engineer Joel Burdick. According to the LA Times Hero Complex blog, Derrickson and Reeves weren't quite ready for the tough questions from the audience. Here's a video clip:

Derrickson told Science Not Fiction that the scientific accuracy of the movie was important to him.

My feeling about it is that it’s science fiction, and because it’s science fiction, you got to be really respectful to the science element of it. I’m married to a nurse, and she is really, really ardent that in screenplays or movies that I’ve worked on, that all the medical aspects be properly presented. I think that filmmakers ought to be respectful of all fields and not just be lazy and put nonsense in movies because most people won’t know the difference. It’s disrespectful to the people in those professions, it doesn’t respect the significance or the import of what they do.

In this movie, our main character is a serious scientist in a real field. We felt it was critical to have some root of legitimacy –- if not complete legitimacy – in all of the dialogue and all of the science that’s presented. There are people who are going to see this movie who will know.
He also was interviewed for Scientific American's Science Talk podcast. He talked about updating elements of the film for modern audiences, the role science advisor astronomer Seth Shostak, and the importance of accurate science in the story. One of the points he makes is that some advanced theoretical science has entered the mainstream to the extent that it doesn't have to be explained in detail to the movie going public.

The example he uses is actually part of the plot that's based on biotechnology: Keanu Reeves initially plays a human whose skin is sampled by the aliens, who use the DNA to create an identical-looking Klaatu. According to Derrickson, creating a clone from a sample of DNA so mainstream that "everybody gets it" without explanation. He even thinks that providing a detailed explanation could be insulting to the audience. It will be interesting to see whether it's as clear in the movie as he thinks it is.

The main scientist character is an astrobiologist played by Jennifer Connelly. She worked closely with Shostak, who is involved in the search for extraterrestrial life at the SETI Institute, to get the character right. As Shostak wrote in his report on the film for LiveScience:
Among my biggest responsibilities was to advise Jennifer Connelly on believable jargon and interests for her character Helen, the astrobiologist. Connelly was, like Reeves, remarkably serious about her role, wanting to understand her real-world counterparts as well as possible. She did everything short of writing a NASA grant application.
He also "tried to wean the filmmakers from the cliche image of scientists as clipboard-carrying, labcoat-wearing ciphers." Sounds great, as long as they didn't instead turn Connelly into that other movie scientist cliche: the totally hot woman scientist who can barely keep her shirt buttoned, but doesn't seem to be too sure of the actual science business.

Of course the accurate portrayal of science - and scientists - is no substitute for an interesting script and good acting. Based on the initial reviews, that unfortunately doesn't seem to be the case. And I suppose I should note that one of critic Roger Ebert's (many) criticisms is that the movie is based bad biology:
The aliens are advanced enough to zip through the galaxy, yet have never discovered evolution, which should have reassured them life on earth would survive the death of mankind. Their space spheres have landed all over the planet, and a multitude of species have raced up and thrown themselves inside, and a Department of Defense expert intuits: "They're arks! What comes next?" Defense Secretary Kathy Bates intones: "A flood." So this is the first sci-fi movie based on Intelligent Design, except the aliens plan to save all forms of life except the intelligent one.
Maybe I'll wait to see this one until it comes out on DVD.

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  1. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Yesterday I went back and re-watched the original version.

    I was a bit taken aback when I heard that it was being remade. The original is seen as one of only a handful of nearly perfect science fiction movies. It was a seminal work, ideologically unique for it's time.

    The fact that it's now been reinvented with some sort of manufactured environmental message, rather than the anti-cold war message of the original is a bit insulting.

  2. I think Ebert's criticism is cobblers -- it can take millions of years for biodiversity to recover following a mass extinction event. If you're a in a universe where mullticellular life is extremely rare, it doesn't matter how fancy your technology is, millions of years is still a long time -- the temptation to intervene, prevent a mass extinction, and preserve what would be a notable fraction of the total galactic biodiversity would be irresistible.

  3. Thomas: I just saw the original for the first time last night, and I'm not sure I'd call it perfect. There were some big plot holes. However, I think it was unusual with it's message of peace.

    Stephen: I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know how they present it. But if life is precious and rare, wouldn't intelligent life be even more so? Why would the best solution be to wipe out humanity, which might not fix our climate anyway?


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